Rodney Smith re Sn 743-745: "effort is the basis of all suffering"

In Rodney Smith’s book “Stepping Out of Self-Deception” he quotes the “truth of the Buddha’s words” in the following fashion. Anyone care to comment why he translates in this way? The Pali words here are not familiar to me.

Smith (p94):
‘Effortlessness reveals the natural state of all things. From this abiding we hear the truth of the Buddha’s words: “One insight is that effort is the basis of all suffering. The other insight is that by the complete cooling and cessation of effort no more suffering is produced. These are the two insights, grasp them together and with energy, dedication, and care, you can expect one of these two results. Every form of suffering grows out of effort. Eradicate effort and no more suffering is produced. Consider the harmful consequence of effort, that it is the basis of suffering. But when all effort has been abandoned there is the freedom of the effortless.”’

The footnote on this quote refers to Sutta Nipata verses 743-745. The Pali word for effort as in “Wise Effort” is vayama. This word appears once, in verse 745, as far as I can tell. These two translations appear to relate the teachings to interrupting the cycle of Dependent Origination.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of these same verses
743: “Therefore, having correctly understood,
having directly known the destruction of birth,
through the destruction of clinging the wise
do not come back to renewed existence.”
744: “Whatever suffering originates
is all conditioned by instigation.
With the cessation of instigation,
there is no origination of suffering.”
745: “Having known this danger,
‘Suffering is conditioned by instigation,’
having relinquished all instigation,
one is liberated in non-instigation.”

Bhante Sujato’s translation:
743: But those who fully understand contact,
And with final knowledge have stilled desire,
By comprehending contact,
They are wishless, quenched.
744: Whatever feelings there are,
Whether pleasant or painful,
And even including neutral,
Internal and external;
745: Knowing this as suffering,
Confusing, disintegrating;
Seeing feelings fall away with each touch,
One understands this matter.
With the ending of feelings,
One is wishless, quenched.

Sutta Central seems to use a slightly different numbering system than the Pali Text Society, so for Bhante Sujato’s translation of this passage you need to start at 750.

Anyway, the Pali word I suppose is under review here is ārambha-. Smith seems to translate it as ‘effort’; Bhikkhu Bodhi as ‘instigation’; and Sujato as ‘kammic activity’.

Sorry about that, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 744 is SC 750.

According to SC, the New Concise Pali English Dictionary definition of ārambha is “wrongly directed exertion or action.” The PTS definition is (in part) “attempt, effort, inception of energy.”

Alternatively ‘harmful conduct’ per Ven. Varado (Illustrated Glossary of Pāli Terms)

One could so easily read this as “just give up and do nothing even if your hair is on fire because why bother.” That is probably not how the author intended however. In fact it quite clashes with Right Effort. Lacking the adjective of Right or Wrong, one could be mislead by the simple word “effort”. I believe the author has cleverly omitted the “wishful” or the “instigation” from “effort” for dramatic emphasis. Last time I checked, walking uphill tends to expend more effort than walking downhill. That’s just physics. Enlightened monks walking uphill wouldn’t suffer and whine about walking uphill however, so I think the author was trying to convey that through the clever use of “effortless”.

Personally, I prefer direct, clear and unambiguous translation such as provided by Venerables Bodhi or Sujato. Catchy phrases are just too slippery for me. For example, I find the following advice more practical than grasping at “effortless”:

They generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind, and strive so that bad, unskillful qualities don’t arise. --translated by Bhante Sujato


This is a difficult term in this context, and no translation is free from doubt. Smith’s, however, if it is taken to mean that spiritual effort is the source of suffering, is clearly wrong. Ārambha is regularly spoken of as a factor in right effort, i.e. the path out of suffering.

The commentary here says ārambha means “energy connected with kamma” (kammasampayuttavīriya), hence my translation. Ven Bodhi has chosen to stick with his usual rendering as “instigation”.

However, if you check the CPD entry on ārambha, it lists the following senses:

a. beginning, inception;
b. initial act, attempt, undertaking, preparation, arrangement, work, action;
c. initial effort, initiative, exertion, energy, perseverance;
d. evil act, offence, injury

The idea of “kammic energy” doesn’t really fit in here. The commentary is, it seems, translating according to context, which is a presentation of dependent origination, with some variant factors. Maybe it’s right, but ārambha is quite commonly used in the sense of “violence, aggression”, and perhaps that is what is meant here. The Sanskrit dictionary also gives the sense “pride”, which might fit; but there is no reference for that, and I do not know that that sense is found in Pali.

Let us return to the context. The sutta has given us a series of terms that follow the standard DO, and after “grasping” we have ārambha. What follows is then a series of terms that do not fit into standard DO. So how are we to read this? Are these terms synonyms or variations on standard DO, or have we simply shifted to a new series of terms that have no organic relation to DO? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to this, although, as I said, it seems the commentary assumes the former. The verses accompanying the terms are too generic to be of use.

What we can say, however, is that later in the sutta, the terms are clearly not fitting in any meaningful way into DO. Given that there is no indication from anywhere else that ārambha is part of DO, I would tend to think we have a simple series of unconnected terms.

That implies that we should read ārambha in terms of its meanings attested elsewhere, rather than assuming it takes on a new, otherwise unattested, meaning in this context. Since the sense “violence, aggression” is well attested elsewhere, and since it clearly is a source of suffering, I would probably want to amend my former translation to “violence”.


just a thought…

Just a thought…

Could “Effort” here be a way to conceptualise the process required to engage in the process of engagement with samsara? ie to have preferences and volition and act to make choices…

It appears logical to me that this requires ‘effort’, or agitation - the opposite of stillness and contentment or ‘effortlessness’.

Note, I’m unaware of the context within the sutta quoted, but that kind of reading seems to have an internal logic… the cessation of engagement, due to a cessation of desire, intention and action, is the cessation of suffering ??

It’s like existence = " is-ness" (an engaged self) = suffering > Samsara
non-existence would = " un-is-ness " (no self and not engaged) = no suffering > NIbanna

? Bhante @sujato


Indeed, I think this is what the commentary is implying, and like I said, I don’t think there’s a definitive right answer here. It’s just that I’d like to see some independent support of ārambha used in this way, and I’m not finding it.

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translation issues aside though - is the interpretation is sound?

Oh, very much. In fact the word that normally appears at this point in DO is bhava. Now, bhava means “existence” or “life” in the sense of, “in my past life I was Cleopatra”. But it is always interpreted as having both active and resultant dimensions. Bhava encompasses both these aspects.


according context, sounds like the “effort” here is a different thing than the effort to put dedication and energy in the Path.

Seems it try to mean an absence of the belief in the power of -self for the path. Effort here could be referred to the effort of the self, which is attachment, clogging panna. Then, the words of the translator could start to sound much better:

‘Effortlessness reveals the natural state of all things. From this abiding we hear the truth of the Buddha’s words: “One insight is that effort is the basis of all suffering."

Well… just an undocumented intuition. I don’t know.

Anyway thanks for the Sutta and your interesting dicussion, I didn’t know this Sutta.